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Rothwell and Hunt highlight the state of mid-tier heavyweights

UFC 135 promised to be an excellent show. Headlined by Jon Jones’ light heavyweight title defense against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, the card also featured a compelling co-main event as welterweight legend Matt Hughes locked horns with former number one contender Josh Koscheck, with the addition of guaranteed fireworks in the form of Nate Diaz against Takanori Gomi.

The main event delivered, as Jones put on yet another scintillating display that saw him submit Jackson with a fourth round rear-naked choke. For their part, Hughes and Koscheck engaged in an entertaining five-minute affair which saw the veteran hold his own and at times, get the better of Koscheck, before eventually being forced to succumb to his younger opponent’s power. Diaz and Gomi didn’t quite replicate the epic battle between “The Fireball Kid” and Diaz’s older brother from 2007, but the bout marked Nate Diaz’s most complete performance to date as he outclassed the Japanese star from start to finish. So, with the card’s three showcase fights producing some terrific action, why isn’t the show being heralded a little more enthusiastically by fans and pundits?

For that, we have the heavyweights to blame. Or perhaps more accurately, we have Dana White and Joe Silva to blame. Because one mediocre heavyweight fight is never enough, the usually astute duo somehow saw fit to put two of them on the main card. Worse yet, they had them take place back-to-back. Match-making gaffes are  not something the UFC brass is known for, but this was a rare case where White and Silva got it conspicuously wrong. Having two consecutive heavyweight fights at altitude, neither of which featuring a top level fighter, proved to be a miscalculation.

“This fight is not what I expected”, tweeted Dana White during Travis Browne‘s pedestrian — but victorious — effort against Rob Broughton. Browne was coming off a sensational superman punch knockout of Stefan Struve. As such, it is only fair — and frankly deserved — for the Team Jackson product to get a spot on the main card. However, White’s tweet, honest though it was, is almost misinformed. While a heavyweight fight is always one strike away from a spectacular finish, each passing second makes said finish less likely, and therefore increases the chances of a lackluster, and at times quite tedious affair. That is what makes any bout containing mid-level heavyweights a gamble: it could end quickly and violently, but it could just as likely turn into a dull contest that doesn’t offer much in terms of actual skill. For every Browne vs. Struve, there is a Browne vs. Broughton.

However, for every Ben Rothwell versus Mark Hunt, there is an embarrassment. If Browne’s placement on the main card was well-earned, the aforementioned duo’s spot is anything but. It is somewhat aggravating for far more skilled fighters — not to mention more relevant in their divisions — such as Takeya Mizugaki and Cole Escovedo to be stuck on the prelims, while a triple threat match of Hunt vs. Rothwell vs. Fatigue takes place on the main portion of a card featuring one of the biggest main events of the year. If the UFC was lucky enough to draw any first time viewers, exposing them to two professional fighters having to lean down and rest their hands on their knees mid-fight does not exactly help them formulate the best of first impressions. A bout featuring two iron chinned heavyweights with average skill sets and no cardio was a train wreck waiting to happen, as both fighters’ toughness meant a finish was unlikely, and their gas tanks meant things would immediately go south following the opening five-minute frame. The bigger blunder was actually having Hunt and Rothwell follow another heavyweight fight without recognizing the risk of having the viewer suffer through thirty minutes of dejection.

The preferential treatment the heavyweight division receives is especially puzzling considering the consistency with which lighter weight classes keep on delivering. The WEC merger seems almost unfortunate in hindsight, when fighters like Joseph Benavidez, Scott Jorgensen, and the aforementioned Mizugaki are consistently reduced to the prelim portion (and sure, Mizugaki and Escovedo did end up making the main card, but that was never a given). In addition to the fact that pound-for-pound, the average bantamweight or featherweight is almost always going to be more skilled than the Ben Rothwells of the world, someone like Joseph Benavidez is a top 3 fighter in his division, which makes it preposterous that his bout with Eddie Windeland couldn’t make it to the main card of a UFC Fight Night event. If Benavidez wins his way to another title shot — a feat that is totally within the realm of possibility — the casual fan could very well be completely unfamiliar with him when it’s time to compete for the title. After all, there is a reason this weekend’s bantamweight title fight will given away for free; which in all fairness, is a smart move.

While I’m as excited as anyone for the upcoming mega-bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, the quality of heavyweights beyond the absolute elite fighters is simply poor. It is time the UFC starts treating them as such. But then again, the end of the Rothwell/Hunt fight saw UFC commentator Mike Goldberg exclaim: “What a fight…wow!”

Wow indeed Goldie.

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